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The History of the Hamburger: The Story of the World’s Greatest Sandwich

Everyone loves the hamburger. But how many actually know the beginning?

Everyone loves the hamburger. But how many actually know the beginning?

The Hamburger, Lunch of Millions

The hamburger. Just say it, and everybody knows what you mean. It is simple in its basic form: a cooked patty of ground beef between two buns. But the sandwich has flourished so successfully that it has evolved into many distinct and tasty variations, from the humble cheeseburger to the towering triple-decker with lettuce, tomato, onion, bacon, mushrooms, onion straws, mayonnaise, ketchup, mustard, and special sauce. That’s a lot to get your mouth around, but the hamburger is so delectable that many people are willing to try it.

The hamburger has become a staple meal for millions of people across the globe. They’ve been around since we were kids, but where did it all begin? Let’s look into the past…the deep past for the answer.

Mongol Cavalry. They may be sitting on some precursor burger patties there.

Mongol Cavalry. They may be sitting on some precursor burger patties there.

The Ancestor of the Hamburger Carried Forth in Conquest

Mongol leader Genghis Khan, who lived from 1162 to 1227, rode with his armies from Northeast Asia and conquered most of the lands of Europe and Asia. His cavalry, busy men as they were, were hungry and needed to eat on the go. So they would scrape cuts of meat off sheep and form them into patties. These patties were put under their saddles while they rode, and the constant jarring between the seat and the back of the horse tenderized the meat until it was soft, then eaten by the soldiers raw. Thus the progenitor of the hamburger was spawned beneath the rear of a Mongol warrior and the back of a horse.

Genghis Khan’s grandson, Khubilai Khan, couldn’t stop where Grandpa did and invaded Moscow in 1238, where the Russians adopted their invaders’ ground meat into their own steak tartare dish. During the 1600s, shipping trade opened between the German port of Hamburg and Russian ports. The Russian steak tartare was brought back to Germany and called a tartare steak.

A copy of The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy cookbook

A copy of The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy cookbook

The Cookbook That Transformed Dinners in the Old World and the New

During the mid-18th century, England experienced a surge of German immigrants. Along with them came their culinary tastes, and in particular they relished their tartare steak. A cookbook called The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy was published in England in 1747. Written by Hannah Glasse, the book includes 972 recipes for a wide variety of dishes, as well as instructions for medicines and housekeeping tips. Among the recipes is one called “Hamburgh Sausage” which consisted of chopped beef, suet, and spices served with toasted bread. Hannah’s book is widely considered to be the first modern English language cookbook, as it was written in plain, simple terms for the commoners, rather than the elaborate and complex cookbooks written in French for professionals at the time. Because of this accessibility, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy became a hugely popular cookbook for many decades since its publication in both England and Colonial America, where it was published in 1805.

Claims to the Invention of the Hamburger

There are many claims for the invention of the modern hamburger dating back to the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Some of the claimants are, to name a few: Louis Lassen, Charlie Nagreen, Fletcher Davis, Frank and Charles Menches, Oscar Bilby, and Otto Kuase. There is no hard evidence for any of these claims, as they are stories told by descendant family members or other third-hand accounts. With no written or otherwise documented proof of origin, any or none of these could be the real inventor of the hamburger.

A couple of more verifiable sources are better candidates for the birth of the hamburger. A close cousin of the hamburger was popular in Hamburg. In 1869 it was called "Rundstück Warm", which translates to "bread roll warm", and was said to be a meal for emigrants on their way to America. In 1847 the Hamburg America Line, a transatlantic shipping enterprise established in Hamburg, Germany, was reported to have served Hamburg steak between two pieces of bread to emigrants embarking to America. Either of these accounts might have been the invention of the hamburger and given it its name.

The 1904 World's Fair

The 1904 World's Fair

Evangelizing the Burger

Just as Paul was the great herald of Jesus, bringing him worldwide recognition, so was the 1904 World’s Fair the herald of the hamburger. Held in St. Louis, Missouri, this fair is the purported birthplace of many American foods, such as the hot dog, peanut butter, the club sandwich, iced tea, the ice cream cone, and cotton candy…and the humble hamburger. It may not have been where the first hamburger was made and served, but the 1904 World’s Fair created an explosion in the hamburger’s popularity. The fair sprawled out across two square miles and was the largest fair in history at its time. Sixty-two countries and forty-two states had vendors there to display their cultures to the public, who turned out in droves to experience all the products, inventions, and food they had to offer. Several small vendors served hamburgers to the crowds, who then spread the news of the fantastic sandwich to their respective hometowns and countries. Those tiny vendors at that fair came and went quickly, and their identities cannot be traced, but because of them the popularity of the hamburger radiated across America and throughout the world.

Wimpy, hamburger con.

Wimpy, hamburger con.

The Wimpy Connection

Wimpy, a character in the comic strip “Popeye”, began appearing in the comic in 1931. Known for loving hamburgers, he helped popularize hamburgers in America. Always trying to con anybody for a burger, he was famous for saying, “I’d gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.”

Cars, Fast Food, and the World

The advent of the automobile ushered in the age of the fast food restaurant. The ease and speed of driving a car was soon translated to the food industry as restaurants began catering to the needs and schedules of people on the go. The first fast food restaurant was White Castle, a hamburger joint that opened in Wichita, Kansas in 1916.

A successful format for the early fast food restaurants was serving customers as they sat in their cars, catered to by an employee that would walk out to them to deliver their order. Over the next few decades, methods of the fast food restaurant were refined and perfected until by 1951 the Merriam-Webster dictionary’s first inclusion of the term ensured it became a household term. It was at this same time that McDonald’s became a favorite of the American public. McDonald’s staple item was the hamburger, and in 1968 they introduced their famous Big Mac burger to the nation. The hamburger has been so popular around the world that now McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s have chains worldwide.

The burger menu has greatly expanded over the decades to include cheeseburgers, bacon burgers, mushroom and Swiss burgers, and hundreds more variations. The hamburger is served in many venues nowadays, such as the aforementioned fast food restaurant, steak houses, diners, carnivals and fairs, curbside vendors, backyard grills, and dinner plates in millions of homes. What began over two hundred and fifty years ago as a modest patty on bread has boomed across the planet to be enjoyed by millions.


David Halk (author) from Pennsylvania on November 01, 2018:

Thank you, John E Bailor! Enjoy those burgers!

John E Bailor on November 01, 2018:

Enjoyed this article. Now I want to enjoy some burgers!

David Halk (author) from Pennsylvania on October 30, 2018:

It was quite a surprise when I found out, but it actually makes sense to keep a patty of meat under the seat. Keeps it warm too, I would imagine!

Larry Slawson from North Carolina on October 29, 2018:

Really interesting. I had never heard that about Genghis Khan haha. Thank you for sharing.